Growing Up Jewish

    March Passover 2007 Edition            
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Cheder Tale


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A Cheder Tale

By Keith Bloomfield

Ben's days in cheder were a lifetime before iPods, an inkling before the British invasion and a spaldeen's throw from the grounds of the World's Fair. The Talmud Torah where Ben's teacher, his moreh, drilled the students on the daily brachot, blessings for nearly every human experience, occupied first and second floor apartments on a quiet tree lined avenue off Main Street. The hustle of cars and trucks and the bustle of shoppers along Main Street never seemed to round the corner and violate the avenue that Ben called home.

Little distinguished the building as a house of learning, except for a tiny sign barely visible from the sidewalk. There was always a line of students and bearded men in long frocked coats entering and exiting the apartment through a creaking door in the screened porch. Older students and their teachers sat in the shade on bridge chairs or on milk crates, talking Torah to each other throughout the afternoon and late into the night. Sometimes the Rabbi's wife, the Rebbetzin, would appear with a kettle of hot water and a tray of empty glasses so her visitors could enjoy a glass of tea and maybe some freshly baked cookies.

Ben could recite the prayers upon rising, the "mode ani lefanecha" while still asleep. His moreh told him that there would be more to his religious studies than memorizing blessings. Ben hoped that he possessed the patience to wait.

His days were split between public and religious school. Unlike most of his friends, he ran to classes at the cheder. His friends' afternoons were a blur of activity. He made time for quick games of skully. Ben was skilled at flicking his wax filled bottle cap across the pebbled sidewalk to find its target on the chalked-in game board. When a kid from the next block was caught with a nickel, for extra heft, buried beneath the wax in the bottle cap, it was noogies for him and an escort to his home stoop.

Ben had little interest in ringo-levio. On route to class he could hear his friends in the distance shouting, "Caw – caw –ringo-levio – 1-2-3-1-2-3," when they ran for home. Home was the milk machine – twenty-eight cents a quart for white or chocolate and free if you knew where to kick it.

Sometimes he had to dodge an errant roof shot from the big kids playing stickball. "Throw it here," bellowed voices from the roofs of the garden apartments. Ben would hurl the pink rubber sphere to a rooftop outfielder and watch it sail home long after the runner crossed the manhole cover to score. Then the big kids would blame Ben for being too slow and he would walk away ignoring their howls and catcalls. Nothing would keep him from class.

His moreh was studying to be a rabbi, but he was not like the other old men who taught at the cheder and clearly lived in a world apart. Ben's teacher talked to his class about what it meant to be Jewish in a world of movies, baseball, and even rock and roll. He looked different, smelled different, and even spoke more like his dad than the other rabbis. Torah was at the center of everything his teacher spoke about. Not merely the bible stories his friends in public school teased him about, but lessons, laws and most importantly, a code to make him a better person and give focus to his life.

"The Torah is not about the world around us," declared his teacher. "The world is about Torah." Ben's moreh was the magnet that drew him to cheder and kept him coming back each afternoon. Torah was the engine that drove his moreh. His teacher not only studied Torah, he had a relationship with it. It spoke to him, it urged him on, gave his life purpose and he shared that purpose with his students: especially with Ben. Sometimes, the teacher gazed at the back of the classroom, still talking to his students, but seeking affirmation from an unseen presence.

Without fail, during the last class of the week, the teacher raised a topic that fired Ben's imagination and the boy's hand would shoot up with a question. At that very moment, the moreh looked at his watch. "I'm so sorry Ben, we're out of time. Why don't you think about it and ask it next week." Ben more then thought about it. The question dominated his thoughts until the next class.

He sat in public school or at recess, ruminating on the answer. He sat up in bed with a start thinking he had answered his own question, only to realize that his answer would never satisfy his moreh. Ben always had a response by the next class. His teacher would begin the class by letting Ben ask and answer his own question. Ben was usually right. Perhaps a bit of commentary was required from the teacher, but Ben always came through. His classmates were jealous. His teacher was proud to have a student like Ben: a boy who loved to learn and who valued what was being taught.

When public school began each fall, the annual parade of festivals and holidays punctuating Jewish life was never far behind. Selihot announced the arrival of Rosh Hashanah and warned that Yom Kippur was not far behind. Sukkot appeared without notice and meals in the succah the Rabbi built behind the cheder were always special. Friends and extended family ate dinner beneath the thatched roof and the children tried to count the stars through the gaps between branches. Only the brightest stars, the ones not bleached out by the lights of the city shown through.

Simchas Torah was the holiday Ben's older classmates yearned to celebrate. On Simchas Torah, the annual cycle of Torah parshiot ends and a new cycle begins with the reading of Bereshit, when the Lord creates the heavens, the earth and eventually the first man and woman. It was a holiday marked with joy, when the men would march around the sanctuary in processions, hakafot, carrying Torah scrolls. Each child received a miniature scroll so they could join in the parade that poured out onto the street, down the block and around the corner into the parking lot behind the building. What the boys most looked forward to, was that on Simchas Torah, even the youngsters were clandestinely permitted a little wine to ward off the chill and lighten the spirits.

One cool night in early October, Ben and his family, walked the short distance from their home to the cheder to celebrate Simchas Torah. The cheder's lower floor doubled as a classroom and sanctuary. On weekday mornings, the room filled men who came to pray, to say Kaddish for a loved one or to ensure that the required ten men were present so that another could recite the prayer. They stood or sat, some in suits and some in shirtsleeves, their heads crowned and their arms entwined with tefillin.

On Friday nights and Shabbat mornings the room was alive with entire families. Sometimes the din of children drowned out the Hazzan. When the elderly complained to the Rabbi about the noise, he reminded them that it was the "sound of atid; the sound of our future." That was usually enough to stop even the staunchest protest.

Ben's family stopped just inside the door and surveyed the room. The men congregated on one side of the space talking and drinking whiskey and schnapps. The women gossiped on the other side of the room and the children chased each other up and down the long rows of wooden folding chairs.

At the front of the room sat a battered wooden ark containing several of the congregation's most treasured Torah scrolls. Scrolls sheathed in satin covers worn shiny from years of being hoisted on shoulders or rubbed against silver breastplates. The centerpiece of the ark was a Sefer Torah rescued by the Rabbi from a tiny synagogue in Warsaw on the eve of the pogroms. This was the scroll that the Rabbi saved for himself. It was the one that he held when he addressed the congregants or led processions around the sanctuary. Once when Ben arrived to class early, he found the Rabbi alone in the sanctuary, cradling the Torah in his arms, perhaps listening to its pain, walking around the empty room and sobbing quietly.

When, the Rabbi appeared, they knew it was time for the service to begin. During the service, the boys were called forward for the Kol HaNaarim blessing. Huddled together under a billowing talit, the Rabbi intoned, "May the angel who redeems me from all evil bless the children, and may my name be declared among them, and the names of my fathers Abraham and Isaac, and may they teem like fish for the multitude within the land."

When the service ended, it was time for the celebration. The Rebbetzin glided across the open floor carrying a huge metal tray loaded with paper cups of grape juice for the children. Always covered from neck to floor, Ben and his friends wondered if she had legs and if not, how could she move with such grace. A space on a long linen covered table was cleared for the tray. Ben and his friends pounced on it to ensure their share of juice and cookies.

Ben spied his moreh inching toward them. His tussled red hair was stuffed beneath his grey felt hat and his arm was hidden inside his long black coat. As he approached the youngsters, a toothy grin spread across his face and he withdrew a bottle of wine from deep within the pocket of his coat. Shielding what he was doing from the adults on the other side of the room, the young man refilled their cups with the thick, fragrant beverage. The boys greedily finished cup after cup until the room around them began to swim and peals of silly laughter erupted from the giddy children.

A hakafah was forming and Ben was handed a miniature Sefer Torah. "This is nothing more then a toy," he mumbled. "The rollers are cheap pieces of wood and Torah is printed on ordinary paper. Its not even parchment and no scribe invested his soul crafting each letter and trope mark." But he quickly fell in line and followed the procession out the front door and down the avenue. They turned the corner and marched into the parking lot behind the school. The neighbors in the apartments overlooking the courtyard had thrown open their windows and a hundred hands clapped in time to the marchers chanting. There were separate knots of men and women, dancing in circles. The men swung each other around, arms linked and one hand thrown towards heaven. Ben thought of the square dancing his public school class did in the gym. The records were old and scratched and the big Califone record player emphasized each gouge, so the calls were indistinguishable from the fiddle music. There was no music that night, just the sound of voices joined together in praise and celebration.

One of Ben's friends passed him. He was a younger boy, struggling under the weight of a real Sefer Torah. Ben seized the moment and the boys exchanged their burdens. Ben was filled with the kind of electricity he had never felt before. In his hands was a real Sefer Torah -– sheets of parchment, sewn together and wrapped around a pair of hand-carved wooden atzei chaim -- trees of life. It wasn't the wooden rollers or the parchment that gave him energy, it was the words on the parchment placed with love and reverence by a learned scribe. It was nothing like the miniature he had at the start of the evening.

Under the glare of the parking lot lights, he caught his reflection in a windowpane. Perhaps it was the wine, but Ben was certain that it was not the Sefer Torah he saw clutched in his arms. Next to his freckled face was the porcelain-skinned visage of a beautiful young girl only slightly older than him. Her long dark hair flowed over her simple white dress and her eyes laughed as they danced around the space. He thought he could hear his mystery partner whisper in his ear as they twirled around the parking lot unaware of the crowd of celebrants surrounding them, but he did not understand the words.

He saw his teacher in the crowd. He was studying Ben and the way he glided around the asphalt. For a moment, Ben thought his moreh could actually see her too. Was she the muse he so often spoke to at the rear of the classroom? Was he jealous that she had chosen Ben as her partner or was he pleased that maybe she saw in him what she saw in his teacher? His teacher slowly stroked his beard and a broad smile creased his mouth.

Ben had no idea how long he had held the Sefer Torah or where he had been with it. From a crowd of old men on the perimeter of the driveway, the Rabbi walked slowly toward him. The Rabbi had little direct contact with the younger students, but when he approached one of them, it was usually for something important. The Rabbi stood in front of Ben, his arms crossed against his chest. The hem of his long coat and his white beard rippled in the cool evening breeze. They stared silently at each other and suddenly Ben realized that all eyes were on him. The Rabbi slowly reached out for the Sefer Torah. Ben hugged it tighter. The Rabbi's fingers twitched.

Ben knew what the Rabbi wanted. "No," said the boy. "You can't take her from me!"

The Rabbi stood up straight and stared down at the youngster. A broad smile crossed his face and his eyes sparkled. He knelt down next to Ben. "You are correct and I am wrong," he whispered. Ben cocked his head so he could hear everything the Rabbi said through his thick accent. No one ever questioned the Rabbi. Now, he was admitting that he was wrong and to a child too. "Never let go of Torah. Hold on to her with all of your heart and with everything you value. But remember, when you are ready, look around and you will always find someone nearby to share her with." The Rabbi slowly nodded at Ben and Ben found himself nodding back. The Rabbi stood up and backed away from the boy.

Ben continued to dance, embracing the scroll. In time, he found someone to share her with and he has been sharing Torah ever since that cool October evening so many years ago.


from the March Passover 2007 Edition of the Jewish Magazine

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